Here's a challenge for all of you Christmas trivia buffs out
there: Name the first-ever animated holiday special produced especially for
If you were thinking "Rudolph the Red-Nosed
Reindeer," you'd be wrong. That much-beloved Rankin-Bass production didn't
debut on NBC until December 6, 1964.
Likewise "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (That Peabody Award-winning program
didn't premiere on CBS 'til December 9, 1965) and "Dr. Seuss' How the
Grinch Stole Christmas" (This Chuck Jones-directed holiday favorite didn't
bow on the Tiffany Network until December 18, 1966).
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So which TV program can claim the first-ever-animated-Xmas-special
crown? "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol." This surprisingly faithful adaptation-for-television
of Charles Dickens' 1843 novella debuted on NBC on December 18, 1962. And it has remained a holiday
favorite for 50+ years now, largely because of the wonderful score that Broadway
vets Jule Styne and Bob Merrill wrote for this seasonal favorite.
Which is why -- when The Actors Fund announced earlier this
year that it would be producing a one-night-only concert presentation of
"Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" -- show tune fans & baby boomers alike began
a mad scramble for tickets to this December 15th benefit event.
"And what's fun about this upcoming Actors Fund benefit
is that its roots can actually be traced back to another one-night-only concert
presentation that we did in 2002. We had worked with the Jule Styne estate on
this version of 'Funny Girl' that we presented -- appropriately enough -- at
the New Amsterdam Theatre. Which was, of course, the very stage that Fanny
Brice performed on when she was in the Ziegfeld Follies," producer /
playwright Timothy Pinckney explained during a recent phone call. "But
instead of just doing a straightforward concert version of 'Funny Girl,' we decided
to adapt the script of that show to accommodate a different Fanny Brice in
every scene. So that when this show started, the first Fanny Brice you saw was
Sutton Foster and she sang 'I'm the Greatest Star.' And then -- over the course
of this special concert version of 'Funny Girl' -- a new star like Idina Menzel, Kristin
Chenoweth, Carolee Carmello, Bebe Neuwith and Jane Krakowski would come out
onstage with each new scene. And you'd then get to hear their interpretation of all those great Bob
Merrill & Jule Styne songs."
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"So we presented this much beloved Broadway show in a
different way and it was a very successful night for The Actors Fund. But more
importantly, the Styne estate was very pleased with what we'd done. And we've
had a good relationship with them ever since then," Pinckney continued.
"In fact, the estate actually approached us about putting together a
concert presentation of 'Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol' because this animated TV
special is a great telling of Charles Dickens' classic holiday tale. And they
were thinking that this project might have legs as a show beyond the animated
special if for no other reason than this TV show's score is beautiful and was
written just about the same time that Bob & Jule were working on 'Funny
Girl.' I mean, these guys were at the very top of their game when they wrote
the songs for this animated Christmas special."
But that said, Timothy still faced quite a challenge as he translated
Barbara Chain's teleplay (which -- in & of itself -- had been freely adapted
from Charles Dickens' novella) to the stage. Given that this 1962 holiday
special had been built around the nearsighted Mr. Magoo ... Well, did that then
mean -- when the Actors Fund went about casting a performer to play this show's
title role -- that they'd then have to find someone who could do a really great
Jim Backus impression? (Editor's note: Jim Backus was the comedy legend who
voiced Mr. Magoo from this cartoon character's first appearance in UPA's 1949 short,
"The Ragtime Bear" right through to CBS' 1977 animated series,
"What's New, Mr. Magoo?").
"I was initially concerned about this aspect of 'Mr.
Magoo's Christmas Carol' as well. But as I watched & rewatched this
animated holiday special, I realized that this cartoon character was really only
Mr. Magoo in the first scene in this TV show and then again at the very end of
the show. In between these two points in the program, Magoo's just another
contract player at UPA Animation Studio. So playing Ebenezer Scrooge was really
just another gig for him, his next role at that studio," Pinckney stated.
So after taking this observation into consideration, Timothy
crafted the script for the concert presentation of "Mr. Magoo's Christmas
Carol" in such a way that the actor who was playing this show's title role
could then channel that cartoon character's larger-than-life personality &
energy rather than slavishly imitate Jim Backus' vocal performance.
"In the end, building a stage version of 'Mr. Magoo's
Christmas Carol' around someone who was going to have to then do an impression
of a cartoon character that was at the height of his popularity back in the
1950s ... that idea just didn't seem stage-worthy," Timothy admitted.
"But given how strong Bob & Jule's songs are -- That's the real
treasure of 'Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol.' That it has this classic Broadway
score -- we just felt that this show would be better served with a real actor,
rather than a cartoon character, in the title role. Especially when you consider
that this show is -- at its heart of hearts -- really a traditional and
beautifully rendered telling of that Charles Dickens classic."
So will this concert presentation feature any songs that
Merrill & Styne had written for "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol"
that were then cut or dropped from the holiday special? Sadly, Pinckey says
"We actually asked the estate about that. But there
just didn't seem tobe any songs that Bob & Jule wrote that then didn't make
it into this TV program," Timothy admitted. "I mean, that was
something that we did with our 'Funny Girl' concert presentation. The Jule Styne estate found us a trunk song that had originally been Nick Arnstein's
solo in the show which then wound up being cut in Boston.
And Peter Gallagher -- who played Nick Arnstein at our 2002 fundraising event --
got to present this song for the first time in New York.
But as for 'Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol,' it'll just be the songs that Bob
& Jule wrote for the holiday special plus some reprises."
So having firmed up a script and a score for their one-night-only concert
presentation of "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol," how did Carl Andress
(i.e., this show's director), John McDaniel (music director) and Marcos Santana
(choreographer) then go about casting this show?
"Well, that's the great thing about being The Actors Fund. Given that we
are the human services organization for everybody in the entertainment
industry, when we do events like this, the community just comes together and helps
us. It's their commitment to the cause and generosity that makes events of this
size possible," Pinckney enthused. "I mean, 'Mr. Magoo's Christmas
Carol' is going to sound absolutely amazing. We're going to have a 28 piece
orchestra playing the score at this concert presentation. And every one of
those musicians volunteered their time & their talents because they
sincerely believe in The Actors Fund and what our organization does for the
"As for the actual cast of the show, it's just an embarrassment of riches.
Everyone came on board for the right reasons. They wanted to do this show to
help raise money for The Actors Fund," Timothy continued. "Which is
why we've got people like Christopher Sieber -- who's doing eight shows a week
in 'Matilda' -- carving out time to come rehearse 'Mr. Magoo's Christmas
Carol.' The Fund has a long, distinguished history of presenting benefits and
events like this. But the cast that's come together for this concert presentation
-- I think, personally -- is one of the best we've ever had."
"And you want to know the really funny part? A lot of
these performers didn't just join this production because it was an Actors Fund
event. They wanted to be part of this show because they grew up watching 'Mr.
Magoo's Christmas Carol' on television every holiday season and they just loved
the idea that they were now going to get the chance to perform those great
Jule Styne & Bob Merrill songs live onstage," Pinckney concluded.
"Even the performers who couldn't take part in this concert presentation
because of scheduling conflicts -- as soon as they heard what we were doing --
were like 'Oooh! I wish I could be in that!' "
Well, if you'd like to catch The Actors Fund's one-night-only concert
version of that holiday classic, "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" (which
will be presented at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College on Monday, December
15th at 7:30 p.m.), not to mention help out a very worthy cause ... Well, you might then
want to swing by The Actors Fund store and pick up a ticket for this benefit
This article was originally posted on the Huffington Post's Entertainment page on Wednesday, December 10, 2014
Hey, Jim, might want to double-check your spelling of Jule Styne's name; I see it rendered about three different ways here.
I hate to admit it since I'm such a big fan of the various holiday specials, but I've never seen "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" - I'll have to see if I can find it on TV.